Maid in His Image

Photo on 11-19-14 at 12.00 PMIn the grand scope of eternity, what is the point of my cleaning this toilet?

To answer that painfully relevant question, I need to backtrack. Last summer my Ugandan students went around the classroom introducing themselves to me: pastors, bishops, government officials, development consultants, organizational leaders. But what they left out of their impressive list of jobs were the animals they tended, the ground they tilled, the buildings they cleaned, the meals they cooked, the household items they made and sold: all a daily part of making ends meet. The juxtaposition of such high-power social positions with what seemed to me to be low-level unskilled labor caught me off guard. And it pushed me to re-evaluate my attitude towards menial service.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit… Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:1-4

So when I came across a family in our area looking for a weekend house-cleaner, I took the job. Why should I consider myself socially above being someone else’s domestic help? Why would my advanced degrees and higher-level teaching position somehow “over-qualify” me for menial work? My family needed the income, and more than that, I needed the training.

My reactions to the experience would reveal how much I needed it.

This basin-and-towel ensemble isn’t gold-plated and it certainly isn’t easy on the back, but it is shaping me into the image of my Lord.

The first few weeks on the job I struggled with insecurity and self-pity, feeling a sudden, self-imposed separation from my church friends and social peers. Many of them hire house-help; now I was house-help. Though nothing had really changed, I suddenly felt very poor, begrudging each unnecessary expenditure my family made as if it were a personal statement on the value of my labor.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!
Philippians 2:5-8

The worst, though, was the irritability that came bubbling to my surface, revealing a deep sense of self-righteous entitlement that I hadn’t known was there. I wholeheartedly threw myself into the work, scrubbing someone else’s toilets and floors as a spiritual act of service. But having spent myself in sacrificial service there, I resented coming home to the mess and chaos of my own home. I grouchily barked out orders to my children, betraying my assumption that I deserved an exemption from going a third mile because I had already gone the second.

Week after week my eyes have been opened to the significance of Jesus’ decision to put on human clothes and become our “help.” Heavenly status laid aside. Immortality discarded. God made in our image, after our own likeness. Sore hands. Aching back. Wounded pride. Devalued labor.

Servanthood was an overflow of Jesus’ self-secure love:
fully compatible with His glorious position,
fully intermingled with His ongoing story.

But having spent Himself in serving the masses, He did not resent going the third mile, or the fourth, or the fifth. He had walked dusty miles, fed ungrateful crowds, washed stinky feet, and waited on disbelieving disciples. You would think that His ultimate act of service would finally be enough, that having His hands pierced and His body broken would earn Him an easy chair or at least some disability. But there He was the next weekend, glorified body and all, building a fire and cooking breakfast while His disciples were out fishing.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:9-11

I still shudder at the thought of sitting around that fire, watching the Lord of glory fix my breakfast, seeing the holes in His hands as He served my plate. It challenges my feelings about service and menial labor to the core. Hard work wasn’t just a means to glory for Him. It was a delight in and of itself. Servanthood was an overflow of God’s self-secure love, fully compatible with His glorious position, fully intermingled with His ongoing story.

And I have the weekly privilege of sharing in that story. I get to lay aside my pretty clothes and plunge my hands into someone else’s mop bucket. This basin-and-towel ensemble isn’t gold-plated and it certainly isn’t easy on the back, but it allows me to practice being like my Lord. Slowly, it is shaping me more into His image.

The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Matthew 23:11-12

I still struggle to live up to His example, to feel the rightness of becoming a domestic servant and to maintain a Christ-like attitude having done so. But God graciously gives me glimpses of how His social hierarchy works. A few Saturdays ago, a dear friend from church invited us to dinner. Exhausted from a hard afternoon’s work, I quickly cycled by home to swap my grubby jeans for a more polished skirt. Minutes later I relaxed by her blazing fire, surrounded by elegant paintings and sipping fine wine from crystal. As I watched this high-class woman’s hands serving me the lavish meal she had spent the day preparing, I fought back tears at the irony and the ecstasy of it all.

Exalted servants. Serving Lord.

Now that is an image for which I am gladly maid.

22 thoughts on “Maid in His Image”

  1. Thank you, This post really touched me where I am today. I am struggling with disgruntled feelings about the work I do for others and feeling neglected myself. Thank you so much, I really needed these words today. I found you on a FB group IBN and I am glad I did. 😉

    1. Oh Amy, you are one of those unsung heroes in the trenches, picking up messes and feeding reluctant faces all day long with no obvious compensation. May our Lord shine the light of His face on you, affirming the value of the sacrifice you make on a moment-by-moment basis and showing you just how pleased He is with you. And may He send along one of those grand reversals in which you suddenly experience Him serving you, whether directly or through the loving hands of another.

  2. Dear Tiffany,
    What a wonderful story of what Christ is doing in your life. Yes, learning that the greatest in the Father’s kingdom will be the slave of all (Mark 10:43-46 RSV), THIS is true leadership… leading by HIS example, not that of Christian hierarchy today. God had done the same thing in my life, made me a willing servant to all, but where it really shows up (or not) is in my own home, serving the one who knows me best, my wife.

    God started me out serving my brothers and sister by fixing broken toilets and replacing them and roto-rooting out sewer pipes for months on end as part of a street ministry to hippie kids that got saved and were being put-up in old broken down houses that needed a lot of fixing (my job). I was not paid a thing other than the wonderful experience of being around God’s kids and being loved by them. Mind you, before God changed my heart I was a red-neck hippie hater, but He chose THIS way to work Christ deep into me (he chooses the foolish things to confound the wise and the week to confound the mighty). I did this kind work for over six years in the early ’70’s.

    Many years later my wife and I were serving in a church as the janitors and during a crowded “worship conference” they put on, some guy went in the men’s room and did a big nasty in the toilet and plugged it up and then flushed it twice for good measure so that the brown chunks were floating over the bowl and out of the bathroom and down the haul toward the auditorium. The pastor came and grabbed me and said, “Here! Clean that up!” Well, I started in on mopping it up and wringing the mop out by hand in a bucket and got it beat back into the bathroom when I stopped, heart broken, and said to my wife who was standing guard, “Dot, I was doing this same thing over twenty years ago! Nothing has changed!” To this she replied, “Oh, yes it has! YOU have changed!” Right then the presence of the Lord came down over my like I was standing under a waterfall of love! It was one of the most memorable moments of my life.

    “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded… When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
    (John 13:3-17 RSVA)

    Thanks for sharing LIFE with us, sister!

    1. Dear Michael,

      My husband and I howled with sympathetic but delighted laughter over your vignettes. They reveal the sort of person you are and the beautiful work God has done in you. I see such strong parallels between your hands squeezing out that poopy mop and Jesus’ hands wringing out the nasty towel that had just wiped 24 disgustingly dirty feet. What a privilege to emulate and to receive His service. It’s a joy to be your sister.

      1. Dear Tiffany,

        I just shared your reply with my dear wife. I just wanted you to know that you are a real blessing to us and I am so glad we have met. It a joy to read the things you share from your heart and a joy that you are my sister. Lord willing, the four of us will get to meet someday (but we will be sure to wash our hands before greet each other! 🙂

  3. You know, one thing that I really love about being a Freewill Baptist is that we practice footwashing as a part of our Holy Communion service. It is a reminder that if our Savior was a servant to his discipes, our service can be holy as well, if done with an attitude of worship. I consider the simple phrase that is graven on the surface of many communion tables “This do in remembrance of me…” to remind me not just to take the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of Christ, but to bow the knees in humble servitude to others.

    1. Beautiful! Now to actually remember that holy imagery as we wipe up spilled milk and unclog public toilets…. But that is the beauty of rituals. They slowly drive the point from our heads down into our hearts as we keep practicing them. May our Lord give us to eyes to see the sacred significance of the many “foot washing” opportunities that surround us.

  4. Wow, if someone isn’t convicted by that message, I will doubt he/she has a heartbeat! I suppose someone will complain that you make it sound like you’re doing all of the work, but I know you better than that. 🙂

    1. You are too kind, Luke. Actually, as I wrote this post I had to put it down and pray through the self-pity and self-exaltation that were still trying to sneak their way between the lines. What a battle between what I want and what I really want! Thankfully God’s Spirit won the day (which I had asked Him to do) and ended up being the hero of the post.

      What kind of God cooks breakfast and cleans feet?

      1. I remember a great sermon by a pastor who recounted feeling indignant when he was asked to fix the copy machine himself. Didn’t he have minions to do this? It was quite powerful to hear his struggle with the matter. He flew in the Air Force, so he definitely had some “chain of command” thinking going on. Ultimately though, he asserted that our life is to be a life of service, after our King, and this means even the by-the-world’s-standards “top dog” sometimes has to fix the copy machine.

        What kind of God cooks breakfast and cleans feet?

        The only kind of god worth worshiping. 🙂 It’s really fun to watch atheists and skeptics flail in arguing about how dangerous religion is, when presented with Jesus. I mean, aren’t the priests supposed to fleece the flock? That’s the kind of religion one can soundly criticize. This Jesus figure, he doesn’t fit the quickly-dismissable stereotype. He doesn’t fit any stereotype! Otto Borchert’s The Original Jesus is great on this topic.

      2. The only kind of god worth worshiping. 🙂 … You finished my line!

        It always strikes me when I compare the image of Christ to the images of other “incarnate gods” how radically different He is. Not seated in luxury surrounded by adoring consorts, nor seated in shriveled meditation transcendently removed from the suffering of others, but sharing a laugh, shedding a tear, serving a crowd, offering a listening ear, teaching a hungry heart, carrying the load of humanity on the cross, and ultimately sharing the glory of His kingdom in partnership with us.

        Not the kind of God I would have invented, but certainly the kind of God I adore.

      3. The only kind of god worth worshiping. 🙂 … You finished my line!

        I’m glad someone else has independently come to the same conclusion. Hmmm, Holy Spirit action, anyone?

        As well as being existentially crucial, that answer is apologetically powerful. Miracle power is truth-neutral without discernment, as Jesus made clear in Mt 24:23–25. I’m glad that Mt 24:23–25 isn’t happening right now, because I think a tremendous number of people—Christians and atheists and perhaps other religions—would be swayed by the ‘testimonial power’ of the miracles. Yikes, that gives me shivers. All you would need is a small group of people to find a vastly quicker way to do science, and they could appear miraculous. I bet there is such a quicker way, not only on practical grounds, but theological grounds!

        It always strikes me when I compare the image of Christ to the images of other “incarnate gods” how radically different He is.

        Yes! Who would be motivated to promulgate a conception of God or gods, which has the most powerful as the servants? Nietzsche had some fantastic criticisms of Christianity as “slave morality”. And if you look at the history of Christianity, a lot of it was perverted toward the much more advantageous “master morality”, whereby the top Christian ‘officials’ weren’t actually in any sort of obedience to Mt 20:20–28 and Jn 13:1–20.

  5. Tiff,
    That’s beautiful. Thanks for sharing. It sounds so humbling, exhausting, and shaking.

    Love you!

    Sent from my mobile

    1. Oh Ben. It is, but nothing like what you are going through at the moment. Grief is so exhausting, especially when it seems endless. I recently read a quote something along the lines of: the thing about pain is that it demands to be felt. And like the mantra from “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” the only way forward is through it. How I wish I could lift the burden from your shoulders and carry it for you for a day or two, but all I can do is weep alongside you as you trudge forward down this path.

      Having been through other deep dark valleys before, you know there is eventually light at the other end, life on the other side of death. I pray our Lord will make your darkness into light even now, that His voice will be the clearest in your ears, His hand the closest at your side, His presence the dearest in your heart. May these be days that you one day look back and treasure, despite their misery.

      I love you, brother.

  6. I had to think Of this quote as I read this blog post: “This job has been given to me to do. Therefore, it is a gift. Therefore, it is a privilege. Therefore, it is an offering I may make to God. Therefore, it is to be done gladly, if it is done for Him. Here, not somewhere else, I may learn God’s way. In this job, not in some other, God looks for faithfulness.” E. Elliott. Love and miss you deeply.

    1. Christie, so often I mistake effectiveness for faithfulness in wanting to please God.

      That quote reminds me of the months that I lay in bed with typhoid, staring at the same crack in the ceiling as I heard life going on outside my bedroom: all the needs that I normally found such significance in meeting. I wrestled with God, asking Him why He wouldn’t make me able to do the jobs that he had given me to do. And He responded by reminding me that if I was really His servant (as I claimed to be) then I was His to assign to tasks of greatness and His to assign to tasks that felt to me like nothingness (like laying in bed deathly ill for months at a time while my husband had to juggle his work and our young children). Either way, pleasing Him meant embracing whatever job He assigned me and carrying it out with faithfulness. The effectiveness was up to Him.

      And after all that, He sent this amazing young woman to serve me and to win my heart. I’m forever grateful.

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